April 19, 2018

Money Talks | Research

Public libraries are offering financial literacy resources to their communities—but is anyone listening?

Chelsea Dodd remembers learning how to handle money at an early age but later seeing grown-up cousins and college roommates prove terrible with their finances. To her, launching a series of programs at the Montclair Public Library, NJ, felt just as core to her mission as a librarian as helping patrons locate reference titles. Getting people to attend? That was another story.

“I think financial literacy is just as important as reading a book,” says Dodd, the library’s information services supervisor. “But it’s getting the word out there. That’s the struggle.”

Just six years out from the Great Recession and a recent stock market dip that left everyone’s nerves frayed, library patrons are looking for help on everything from saving for retirement to managing their money. Financial regulators understood this need in the early 2000s, launching Money Smart Week (moneysmartweek.org), a weeklong awareness campaign adopted by many public libraries to offer financial resources to patrons.

Yet public libraries are not the first place even regular patrons turn to when seeking fiscal information, according to LJ’s financial literacy survey, sponsored by Card Limited and conducted in February 2015 among 1,466 public library cardholders and in April 2015 among 230 public librarians.

In fact, the public library ranks a depressing last as a place Americans go to learn about finances and financial planning. Just 18 percent of survey respondents named their local branch as a source for monetary information.

It’s not that patrons don’t trust the library as a financial expert—55 percent say they’d attend financial literacy programming if they knew about it. But while 61 percent of public librarians say they’ve held classes on personal finance, banking, debt, and taxes, just 27 percent of patrons say they know their library had run such programs. An awareness problem is evident. How to engage, attract, and then educate patrons are the challenges public librarians face.


Get the word out

Montclair’s Dodd got about 40 people to attend her library’s second Money Smart Week this past April—eight times as many as the five who came in 2014. Already brainstorming how to increase those numbers for 2016, she’s putting more of her budget “toward promotional costs,” she says, and may offer seminars off-site, such as hosting free appetizers at a local bar, to bring in even more foot traffic. “They’ll think, ‘Oh, it’s not library programming,’ ” Dodd says. “Maybe they’ll be a bit more receptive.”

Carrie Watts preferred social media to push the word out about budgeting classes this past April at the Ramsey County Library, Rose­ville, MN. Using Facebook, Twitter, and the library’s own online events calendar, Watts, manager of the North St. Paul branch, publicized programs such as “Shoestring Budgeting” and “Good Eating on a Fast Food Budget,” which ran throughout 2015.

Plan for partners

Of course, not everyone strolling through the stacks is going to want to learn more about economic topics. Lack of interest is the number one reason patrons gave for not coming to a seminar at their local branch, according to LJ’s survey. Partnering with outside groups has been one way library systems have enticed people, sometimes even new patrons, into the library.

As a tax preparation site for AARP, Guilderland Public Library, NY, hosts hundreds of patrons annually who come to get returns done inexpensively, if not for free. Librarian Maria Buhl seized the opportunity, handing out flyers for her Money Smart Week activities in April. Her handouts about the classes, which included Personal Financial 101, netted over 40 people for programs at the end of the month. “People are trooping in from all over the place,” she says. “So I had a captive audience.”

That’s one reason Watts decided to link up with City & County Credit Union, a local institution. It sponsored classes including “Take the Fast Lane to Debt Freedom” at the Ramsey Public Library. Working with an outside enterprise that offers information “related to living a better life” helps to bring people in the doors, she says.

Tailor programs to patrons

The good news for libraries is that once patrons are inside, 87 percent say they trust the information they’re getting, according to LJ’s survey. Finding topics that resonate with regulars then is the goal. With patrons across all age ranges, financial needs can differ widely.

Those between the ages of 18 and 24 selected “doing your taxes” as of primary interest to them, while those 25–29 mentioned “saving for retirement” as classes they were most interested in attending. “Personal finance” topped the list for those 60 years old and up. Annual income levels also influenced the financial interests of those who took LJ’s survey. Households earning under $25,000 wanted to know more about “getting out of debt,” while those earning up to $35,000 were more curious about “tools to manage your money.” High earners selected “saving for retirement” as their first choice of ­programming.

Balancing content to what their community needs is already front of mind for most public librarians. Take Ashley Barrineau, who says her library is situated in a community surrounded by what she refers to as “predatory lenders.” As the adult services and disabilities librarian at the Virginia Beach Public Library, she’s been planning seminars, particularly for those just out of college and starting their careers, on topics from budgeting to growing their savings.

Barrineau believes many young adults miss basic financial lessons, either because family members don’t teach them or they don’t learn it while at school. When they start to make decisions, such as buying their first car or opening a checking account, they’re vulnerable to selecting businesses that are the most visible rather than more prudent options.

“People don’t get information,” Barrineau says. “So we see people with six-year car leases, high interest rates, or payday loans. There’s definitely a need for the library to step in and be an unbiased source of information so we don’t have our community [members] struggle and continue to struggle.”


Speak up

When designing financial literacy sessions, Barrineau incorporates some fun with the details she offers. To that end, she’s deliberately mixed in performers with seminars to create buzz. Armed with a two-year $66,000 Smart investing@your library (smartinvesting.ala.org) grant from the American Library Association (ALA) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), Barrineau has hired a local chef to do cooking demonstrations and has a couponing expert to explain how to save money while grocery shopping when the events start in January 2016.

“Not that crazy couponing where you end up stockpiling things you don’t use,” laughs Barrineau.

Such hands-on demonstrations are definitely the right tack to take, according to LJ’s survey. Fifty-four percent of patrons reported that live programming is the way most prefer to digest financial literacy information, according to the survey. Just one-third lean toward books and materials, and only one-quarter pick software or video to glean financial literacy specifics.

Guilderland’s Buhl would agree with those answers. She had nearly 50 people come to a Personal Finance 101 class during Money Smart Week in 2013, at which a manager from a local credit union, SEFCU, showed patrons how to develop a budget and identify spending habits.

“It was excellent and very popular,” says Buhl. “Even after she completed the program, she had five to ten people…asking questions.”

Don’t forget the kids

Libraries that tailor their events to children have found they can often yield a bigger draw, likely because parents come with their little ones. Those results can be a win-win, as three-quarters of librarians who responded to the survey stated it’s important to teach children financial responsibility.

Rachel Svoboda, a librarian with the Laramie County Library System, Cheyenne, WY, says financially savvy students make better choices later in life. “The best thing is to start at an early age,” she says. “You want to be honest and frank.”

That’s why much of her programming around Money Smart Week this year was geared toward K–12 students, including a seminar called Bunny Money, at which kids were given fake money to learn about needs versus wants. Svoboda got piggy banks donated for another session called Money Matters. About 30 children, teens, and adults spun a wheel, with images of things to buy, such as shoes. Students had to answer if they would purchase the item—or save the money instead.

“Not only were we teaching the children, but we also opened that conversation for parents,” Svoboda says. “If they want something, they can help set a goal and priorities.”

Budget programs on a budget

Lest you think all librarians have five-figure grants such as Barrineau’s, note that Svoboda ran her entire weeklong series for just $200. That included the programming for kids, plus three events for adults: one each on home ownership, managing money, and tackling debt. Most of the money actually went to snacks picked up at a local Walmart.

Montclair Public Library’s Dodd says she’s been able to secure speakers for free. But she’s also reached out to local financial companies asking if they’d be willing to sponsor programs while at the same time working with a grant writer to locate other funding streams.

Just eight percent of public libraries applied for and received grant money to pay for their financial literacy activities. In fact, 41 percent were unaware of grant funding for this kind of event, according to LJ’s survey. A further 21 percent said they knew about grants but didn’t have the time to apply, nor to launch finance-related classes.

Investing the time can pay off, however, as Virginia Beach discovered after netting a $66,000 Smart investing@your library grant for 2015–16. That followed a $51,000 Smart Investing grant the library system received in 2009 to create programming for 12- to 18-year-olds.

Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) won three $100,000 Smart investing@your library grants—the first in 2009–10, then 2012–13 and 2014–15—and used the funds to expand financial literacy offerings by training staff. About ten of BPL’s branches now offer such financial programs, including those run by 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker Edwin Maxwell, key architect of the Growing Dollars and Sense Teen Virtual Investment Club, in which teenagers take intensive, six-month training with finance professionals and compete in an online virtual stock game.


Looking for results

As part of the evaluation process and to respond to grant requirements, library systems collect data, feedback, anecdotes, and outcomes from sessions to see what works and what doesn’t.

“The goal was to see if there were changing attitudes and to see if [attendees] felt more confident or learned more skills,” says Kerwin Pilgrim, BPL’s director of adult learning. “Many did.”

At Virginia Beach, Barrineau also looks for feedback on how the seminars work. She has patrons fill out initial and post surveys when they take classes online. For those who attend seminars at the branch, there are attitudinal surveys given to see whether people feel they’ve gained information.

In fact, of those who attended financial literacy programs at their library, 56 percent said they were very valuable, according to LJ’s survey. And that’s one reason libraries say they keep offering them.

Sure, BPL’s Pilgrim knows some patrons may initially push back against learning about money matters, thinking they don’t have a high net worth and won’t benefit from knowing how to manage their own finances. But he believes everyone can gain useful perspective—if only insight into how to avoid making harmful financial decisions in the future.

“Our role is to make sure [patrons are] getting financial information and unbiased sources,” he says. “We have an interest in protecting people.”

This article was published in Library Journal's November 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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  1. Sherry Bailey says:

    My problem with Financial programming is that I have had a lot of professional financial planners offer to do free and “unbiased” programs for me, and nearly all of them were actually blatant promotions for their businesses — something which our Board of Trustees and I consider inappropriate. They simply lied to me about the actual content, gave just enough information (or opinion) to scare the attendees, and then handed out business cards, suggesting people make free first appointments to discuss their personal situations. Attendees largely liked the programs anyhow, but I felt the Library was taken advantage of by essentially unscrupulous salesmen using our venue to gain respectability.

    If I could find free or inexpensive programming on the topic that really WAS both unbiased and helpful, I’d schedule something at least once or twice a year. As it is, I don’t. It’s a shame, I’m sure there would always be some who would benefit.